Hispanic Myths, Legends Run Amok In Miami Author's Kids Series
Horns and feathers sprout out of Charlie Hernández one day. He’s attending Ponce de Leon Middle School in Miami and he’s busy looking for his parents who have disappeared.
Charlie teams up with his lifelong crush, Violet Rey, and they embark on a supernatural journey, encountering monsters and spirits who populate Hispanic folklore, myths and legends. Charlie draws on the stories that he heard from his abuela to figure out his strange physical manifestations and to ultimately save his parents.
Miami-based author Ryan Calejo created this world in his series for middle-grade readers, or ages 10 to 14. In 2018, Aladdin (part of Simon & Schuster) published his first book “Charlie Hernández & the League of Shadows.” The sequel “Charlie Hernández & the Castle of Bones” came out Tuesday.
He spoke with WLRN’s Alexander Gonzalez about coming up with an “Avengers-style” adventure and what inspired it.
ALEXANDER GONZALEZ: How did you get the idea to have Hispanic myths run amok in Miami?
RYAN CALEJO: I always wanted to write a story in Miami. I was born and grew up here. I love Miami. It's my favorite place in the world. Also, it's called the capital of Latin America. What more of a natural place than somewhere like Miami that has people from South America, Central America, from even the Iberian Peninsula. I have characters like Madre monte, who's from Colombia and is the embodiment of nature. You have La Llorona from Mexico, the Crying Woman. Her story is actually scary. She drowns both her children because her husband cheated on her. She's more on the evil side.
That was one of the the scenes that stood out to me in the first book. Charlie and Violet end up in the Everglades and they have to escape her clutches. Tell me more about how you came up with that scene. I don't think I would have ventured into the Everglades as a 12-year-old.
I always imagined that the fantastical could be right around the corner. I wanted to put the characters feeling what I felt growing up. You have these legendary mythological characters that are hiding in plain sight. La Llorona, for example, has her own little fortune telling shack in the middle of the Everglades. You have that spooky element, and I didn't want to play her too hard horror because it is for younger readers. I thought a little humor blended with a little scary could make a nice combination, especially for that age range.
How much of Charlie's world resembles your growing up in Miami?
A lot, really a lot. He grew up with these stories from his grandmothers, and they were supposed to be a huge part of his life. Well, it was the same thing for me—my grandmothers helped raise me. But I'll be generous and say that I wasn't the best behaved kid on the planet. I was wild. I would "jailbreak" my cousins from their highchairs right before lunchtime. My grandmothers would set up all the kids and feed them all at once. It's the only efficient way. There were like seven toddlers running around. So my grandmothers would tell me stories to entertain me, and they really became part of my life. Charlie is me in a sense.
When was the moment that you said to yourself, I want to write down “Charlie Hernández & the League of Shadows?” Where were you at that time?
I was in college at the University of Miami. I always loved to read and to tell stories because of my grandmothers. They were wonderful storytellers. They had to be to entertain a bunch of crazy kids running around. They would try to make these stories come to life. I just didn't think I'd be able to tell one necessarily because I didn't know what it would take to write a book. But then there was just no other way I could do it. I didn’t have a camera and an acting crew that I could put together to run a few scenes. Writing was the way that I could express that.
For me, these myths and legends have always been like time capsules wrapped up in stories. If we don't pass these on to younger generations, we're losing culture. - Ryan Calejo
What were some of the books that inspired you?
A book that had a great impact on me was "Charlotte's Web," because that's the first book that I have memories of a teacher reading it to us. That blew my mind. It really opened my eyes to what some words on pages can really paint an entire world and take you into somewhere that you didn't expect. When I heard that book, it stirred up something in me–I want to write something like that.
Have any schools in Miami or anywhere in South Florida taught the book?
In Miami, I haven't been contacted. But different states are teaching the book, like Texas and Minnesota. I’ve done a few Skype interviews, speaking with kids in third, fourth and fifth grades. I did a high school once in Texas. They were pretty receptive. There’s also been a positive reaction even from non Spanish speakers–which surprised me because I thought it would really connect with audiences who knew these myths.
Your books make me think of magical realism. Authors like Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende and Rudolfo Anaya. But they dealt mainly with adult themes. Why did you want to write this story for kids?
These myths were a huge part of my life growing up. I grew up in Sweetwater, a very Hispanic community. All my friends spoke Spanish and were from Latin American countries. They knew these stories, but as we got older, they didn't keep it, like I kept it.
For me, these myths and legends have always been like time capsules wrapped up in stories. They give us so much insight to people who came up with these stories. If we don't pass these on to younger generations, we're losing culture. So I said to myself, Wouldn't it be cool if we could have a book that would keep all these stores alive? I didn't see that many books that dealt with these kind of myths.
There's also a lot of Spanish that’s woven into the story. Has the first book been translated yet?
Not yet. One of my grandmothers was begging me for it. She can't read it because she only speaks Spanish. I try to translate some scenes, like the Llorona scene, for example, because that's one of the stories that she told me a lot growing up.
Incorporating a lot of Spanish was something I wanted to do in the book, because Spanish was was my first language. I grew up speaking Spanish in a predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhood. To be true to myself and to be true to Miami, where Spanglish is the unofficial language, I thought that not including that wouldn't be real. I wanted to keep the book as authentic as I could.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.